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Posted on October 22, 2012 and read 3,440 times

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pierno DeflatedAdam Pierno
Creative Director
Partners + Napier, Atlanta
Hunting the Spark

Since the glory days, business has been trying to find ways to maximize profit. Manpower. Efficiency. Agencies, like most businesses, are working leaner than ever.  We’ve adapted and figured out how to do more with less. Each person on the payroll has figured out how to do between 1.5 to 10 different jobs in a single 78-hour week.

So it’s a win for everyone.

Many of us got into this business because it seemed like it was less of a “business.” It was more about problem solving and having fun while doing it. But pulling the air out of every facet of what we do for and with our clients is making both of those things harder than ever to do.

Every minute is now being accounted for. That makes sense. Money is no longer cheap. Benefits cost more than ever (at least in the U.S.). And clients are pushing back on budgets like never before. For that reason, we have to plan those minutes very carefully. When a client mentions a new project, it starts a chain of events which results in many emails and meetings. We start organizing resources. Hours. Timelines. We move people from one project to another. We try to rush them through one thing to get them ready for another. If we can, we call on people from another office. Or get a freelancer ready. We beg. We borrow. We steal.

Maybe that last part is just me.

This scheduling methodology is what I describe as the ‘House of Cards.’ I look at the status sheet with a project manager, and I think, as we slide all the pieces around like a game of Stratego, that we’ve got it all covered. Mission accomplished. We have a plan for every hour for every employee for the next four weeks. We will meet all the client needs. Everyone feels great about it.

Then ten minutes later, a client calls with a rush project. It’s urgent and they need the best team to really put some thought into a few solutions. Perfect. That is just the kind of call we want. No problem. In 1966. So all that personnel planning has gone to hell and we pick up the cards and start over.

In whatever year you’ve heard referred to as the “Glory Days” and rolled your eyes (believe it or not, this could even be as recently as 2007) the majority of clients paid retainers. Or media commissions. Those funds sustained a team of employees who actually were on standby for that client, or just extra staff waiting to drop what they were doing to jump on such a project. In those days (whenever they were), lunch was a daily occurrence and there was an open job in the timesheet software for “foosball.”

But those days are pretty much gone. There aren’t any extra staff members. There are rarely people just standing by. The people still working full-time are busy. They’re Art directing/copywriting/designing/servicing the copier/ordering lightbulbs for the office bathroom/project managing.

This is the reality in a lot of agencies. A lot of them. We watch projects come in and out, and we wish we had more time to sit and think about them, and not have to solve problems while passing each other in the hallway. Great creatives have always wanted more time, they’ve always believed the work could be better. An extra day, or an extra bit of budget would make a huge difference in the details. But those extras are harder and harder (read: nearly impossible) to come by. Now, the air has been pulled out of the business to get agencies as close to profitable as they can get in this wild environment.

The irony, of course, is that problem solving is more complex than ever. We get requests like “Can you let us know by tomorrow if we should be updating our social and digital presence? And if you have some ideas about an app, could you put those together?” Clients are actually asking the kinds of questions agency types have been complaining about not being asked for years. They’re asking for strategic POV’s, insights, big cross-platform thinking and product guidance.

Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, it can be a challenge to find spare brains available on short notice to take on those difficult, even if wanted, questions. Or there might be people that can give it a think, but not without the question of how the agency will capture those people’s time without causing an ulcer. This is disheartening to staff members, and confounding to clients. Everyone on both sides wants greatness. They want more time. They want more focus on the work.

What they need is just a little more air.




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